The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a town near the San Francisco Bay “is poised to do something unprecedented: use cameras to record the license plate number of every vehicle that crosses city limits.” I have written about license plate scanners and their implications for privacy and civil liberties before.
Tiburon’s camera idea is a marriage of technology, policing and distinct geography.
Situated on a peninsula, Tiburon’s hillside homes and waterfront shops are accessible by only two roads, allowing police to point the special cameras known as license plate readers at every lane that leads into and out of the town of 8,800.
The readers, which use character recognition software, can compare plates to databases of cars that have been stolen or linked to crimes, then immediately notify police of matches, said Police Chief Michael Cronin.
If someone burglarized a Tiburon home at 3 a.m. one morning, he said, detectives could consult the devices and find out who came to town in the hours before – and who rolled out soon after. […]
If the Town Council gives final approval, Curran said, officials hope to install the readers on Tiburon Boulevard and Paradise Drive by late fall.
Tiburon plans to spend grant funds on the project and ask two other governments that could benefit from it to contribute to an expected price tag of $100,000 – the city of Belvedere, a bump of land on the southeastern edge of Tiburon, and Marin County.
I am glad that the town is having a public discussion about the license plate scanners, including restrictions on the data collected. City officials released a fact sheet (pdf) on the scanners, which includes a section on privacy.
Will the system invade privacy?
No. It is well established that one does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy driving a car down a public street such as Tiburon Boulevard. License plates are required to be posted on vehicles precisely so that they can be easily and publicly identified. Anyone can stand by the side of the road and photograph passing traffic. Because the camera will only be photographing the rear of vehicles, it will not be able to create a record of its occupants. Unless one is driving a vehicle that has been identified by the TPD in connection with a crime, his or her plate number will simply be one of thousands captured briefly (30-60 days) for review if a subsequent crime investigation so warrants.
This doesn’t answer a fundamental problem with a system of constant surveillance: Constant surveillance treats all individuals as if they are already considered suspicious or guilty — suspicious enough for them to be treated like criminals. Ubiquitous surveillance occurs in certain situations, such as prisons. Do we really want people driving or walking in public to become as watched and tracked as prisoners?
Getting the public to accept the always-on surveillance system initially would be the hard part. Changing the rules of the system later would be easy. It would be simple for police and government officials to later decide to keep the data for longer than 30 to 60 days, to create more uses for the data or to allow more types of government personnel to access the data. The data is already being collected, they would likely say, so why not get as much use as possible out of it?